What to Do When It All Feels New: Teaching at a Social Distance

What to Do When It All Feels New: Teaching at a Social Distance

By Virginia Pitts, Director of University Teaching

It’s an understatement when I say this will be a unique fall for all of us. Whether you are someone who is feeling excitement about our return to campus (like me), or someone who is feeling apprehensive (also me), or someone who is feeling many things at once about our return (clearly me!), I imagine one thing we all agree on is that teaching this fall will present a whole host of challenges we have never before had to deal with. 

Many of these challenges stem from the fact that, in our on-campus classes, students and instructors will be wearing masks and keeping a 6-foot distance from each other. This is not a trivial thing. I got a taste of what that might be like this summer when I facilitated the Hyflex Course Design Institute. As part of the Institute, we met a few times in one of the hyflex classrooms on campus. Prior to gathering, I had been excited to see my friends and colleagues in person, and that was indeed wonderful. Yet, at the same time, I had underestimated how disorienting it would feel – at least at the beginning – to be standing in front of a room of people who were all wearing masks; even people I knew well were hard to “read” when the only part of their face I could see was their eyes!

And while, as a learning scientist, I am a huge proponent of creating ample opportunities for students to learn from and with each other, I realized pretty quickly that I was really going to have to rethink how all of that would work … in large part because, while 6 feet might not feel very far when I am, say, sitting across a picnic table from a friend in the park, it seemed a lot farther when I imagined this classroom-full of participants engaging in multiple small groups conversations, all at the same time, while keeping a 6 foot distance from each other.

As those of you who are already teaching in these spaces can perhaps attest to, the initial disorientation of teaching in a room full of masked individuals eventually goes away – at least, it did for me. Yet, while one of the things I love about my role is learning about all of the amazing ways in which DU faculty members engage students in their learning, I know many of you share my concern that these active learning strategies will be challenging to pull off in our socially distanced spaces (and this becomes even more challenging when we have some students connecting remotely to the in-class experience!).

I share all of this not to say that it’s impossible for us to create engaging, learning rich experiences in this context, but rather to acknowledge that it’s going to take some creativity on all of our parts to figure it out. Here, I want to share some resources that I believe can help with that, along with my current thinking on how we might approach this fall in a way that could make all of this work. 

Resources on Active Learning at a Social Distance

There have been some very interesting – and helpful! – pieces created on this topic by members of the education community. My favorites so far include:

I encourage anyone who will be teaching in the face-to-face, hyflex, or hybrid environments this coming fall to check these out, as they contain some fantastic ideas for learning activities “at a social distance”.

Making it Work: A Learning Approach

Of course, just having an awareness of these possible learning activities is not enough, as I quickly came to realize when I facilitated my first session in a socially distanced classroom this summer. I came in with a detailed, well-thought-out plan for our hour-long session, drawing upon several strategies highlighted in the documents above. But as it turned out I was overly ambitious in my plans, in part because I hadn’t fully accounted for the time it would take for all of us to orient ourselves to our new context, and because, once I saw what it was really like once we were all in the classroom, it was apparent my planned activities would require adaptation for this particular space (so I actually scrapped some of my plans in the moment, given how overwhelmed I was feeling by the newness of the situation!). 

The good news is that, each time I facilitated a session in this space, all of us (myself and the participants) learned a lot that could help make each subsequent session go more smoothly. And that convinced me that the key this term is that we all approach this new situation as a collective learning opportunity. In particular, I am suggesting that we:

  • Acknowledge – with each other and with our students – that this is new to all of us, and explicitly invite our students into the conversation of how we can create engaging learning experiences in this new environment. As the facilitator of the OTL’s Student-Faculty Partnership Program, I am a big advocate of engaging students as co-learners in figuring out how we can create more engaging experiences for all students at DU. Many of you already do mid-quarter student surveys to invite student input/feedback. But this term I would encourage you to consider inviting students into the conversation well before the middle of the quarter, by finding ways to ask students early on and throughout the quarter what they are experiencing, what their hopes and concerns are for this term, and what ideas they have for making this experience better.
  • Go in with a plan, but hold it loosely, knowing it will evolve as we learn more about what works well and what doesn’t. In the Course Design Institutes I facilitate, participants create an overall plan – in the form of an alignment table – for the learning activities and assessments that will support their most important learning outcomes. I believe such planning is an important up-front step. But I also believe this term in particular is one in which we can give ourselves permission to “adapt as we go”. We most certainly will learn more about what works – and what doesn’t – as this fall progresses, both from our individual experience and from our conversations with students and each other. We may discover new ideas, we may have to scratch some of our original ones, and that is all OK. Of course, we may even have to pivot fully online on at some point, even if only for a short time – you can check out the blog by Dr. Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave and Dr. Leslie Cramblet Alvarez on The Pivot Ready Professor to learn more about how to be ready for that kind of adaptation.
  • Articulate – for ourselves and our students – what our most important learning outcomes are, so that we use these as our “north star” in adapting as we go. While on the one hand I realize this may seem obvious, I think it is especially important to have in mind if one is going to engage students in the discussion of how to make the most of the times when you are together, because if you can make it clear to them what you hope they will get out of your course and why, and if they understand and share those hopes as well, then you can better-engage them in this discussion of how to create the most learning-rich possible experience in this new context. If you’re interested in reading more about that, you might check out my blog on Deciding What to Teach When You Can’t Teach it All.

In my mind, this is a term where we have the opportunity to become an even stronger learning community, because given the fact that this is new to all of us, the only way for us to be successful is to embrace this as a time to learn from and with each other in figuring out how we can make this work. It can be really nerve-wracking, and really disorienting – even those of us who have been facilitating learning experiences for quite some time are likely to feel thrown by these new circumstances (I was!) – but what encourages me is the fact that, in addition to being experts in our own disciplines, we are all expert learners (it’s how we all got to where we are in our careers!) … which means we all, together, can figure this out.